Relationship Education Lessons in Schools - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:31 pm, 16th July 2019

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend, the Minister of State for School Standards. The Statement is as follows:

“This spring, Parliament passed the relationships, sex and health education regulations, with overwhelming support. We know that many parents agree that these subjects should be taught by schools. We also know that for some parents, this raises concerns. Parents have a right to understand what we are requiring schools to teach and how their child’s school is intending to go about it. That is why we will be requiring schools to consult parents on their relationships education, or RSE policy. But open and constructive dialogue can work only if the facts of the situation are known to all. We are aware that misinformation is circulating about what schools currently teach on relationships and what they will teach when the new subjects are introduced.

The Department for Education has undertaken a number of activities in response. In April this year, we published frequently asked questions, designed to bust myths on the subjects, and these have been translated into three languages. In June we published the final version of the guidance, Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education, as well as guides for parents on the subjects. Alongside this, we produced infographics that can be easily shared on social media, including WhatsApp—where we know much of the misinformation is shared—setting out the facts. We also sent an email to almost 40,000 teachers, providing them with factual information and links to the various documents.

The Department for Education has also been working on the ground with Birmingham City Council, Parkfield School, parents and other interested parties, to convey the facts of the policy and dispel myths, and to support a resolution to the protests in that school and nearby Anderton Park. Nationally, we have worked with the National Association of Head Teachers, to understand where there might be parent concerns in other parts of the country, and have offered support. We will continue these efforts to support the introduction of the new subjects, which we strongly believe are hugely important for children growing up in modern Britain.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:34 pm, 16th July 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

On 25 February, the Government announced the new regulations and guidance on relationships education, relationships and sex education, and health education. As the Minister said, they were warmly welcomed by all sides of both your Lordships’ House and the other place, but words of caution were part of that welcome.

It was clear that in some schools, the guidelines could be controversial. I asked the Minister for an indication of how many teachers were to be trained in the new subjects, and how many schools he expected to be teaching them by September 2019. I am afraid I did not receive answers to that, nor to my question on what he expected schools to do with the £6 million we made available for training and resources in the new subjects, averaging out at around £250 per school.

Events since have shown that these were key questions because, with the best will in the world, head teachers and classroom teachers simply were not prepared for the onslaught of protests, abuse and trolling that some have since received. In part at least, those disgraceful reactions to the teaching of the “No Outsiders” part of the new guidelines are the result of the Government leaving schools, teachers, head teachers and parents ill prepared for the introduction of the new subjects. Even worse was the Secretary of State being much too slow to speak out in support of those head teachers under duress. He did so, but belatedly. Why did he not demonstrate that support by appearing at those schools worst affected by parental protests, which are often fuelled by people whose interests are not focused on education at all?

Some of those opposed to the new curriculum have argued mendaciously that young children in primary schools are learning about sex or being encouraged to adopt LGBT lifestyles. Will the Minister take this opportunity to state categorically that this is not the case and that anyone suggesting otherwise is wilfully misrepresenting the curriculum? Will he join me in signifying his full support for the brave teachers at those schools in Birmingham who face repeated protests and intimidation, simply for following the law and teaching the curriculum? Finally—I hope it will not be “finally”, although we have a new Prime Minister and new Front Bench in the offing—will the Minister confirm that while schools have flexibility in how they teach the curriculum, complying with the Equality Act is not optional or something that parents can have a veto over, but the law of the land and the will of both Houses of Parliament?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Lord asks a number of questions. The first was on how many schools we envisage will start teaching this voluntarily this autumn. We are up to about 1,500 schools having registered as early adopters; when I took the regulations through in April we had about 1,000, so the number has gone up quite dramatically even in a couple of months. It has spread among primary schools as well.

On the teaching of sex education, the noble Lord is entirely right. At primary level, parents are able to withdraw their children from specific sex education. That is not relationship education and it is important to discern the difference, but they have that right. As I mentioned when we debated the regulations in April, they have the right to withdraw their child up to the age of 16 minus three terms, for the reasons we discussed at that time.

The Government give their unequivocal support to teachers and absolutely condemn the aggressive behaviour. It is worth pointing out that a lot of this behaviour is nothing less than misogynism on the part of some of these protesters, and that they are protesting against the teaching going on at the moment, not the teaching that will come in under the new regulations in September 2020.

The noble Lord’s last question was about whether teaching under the Equality Act is voluntary. I can confirm that that is absolutely not the case. The original provisions of that Act insisted that teaching advances equality of opportunity and fosters,

“good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic”.

Those relevant characteristics include sex, race, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, or pregnancy and maternity.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, we welcome the Statement. I also welcome the Minister’s robust response. It is important that teachers and head teachers are supported. We have agreed the way forward on relationships and sex education; that must not be diluted in any way at all.

I have been concerned on two levels. First, seeing that particular head teacher face a very difficult situation, I am not sure whether at that moment there was the proper support for that person. I also hear of a number of cases where governing bodies have not been supportive of head teachers, particularly the chairs of governing bodies. What advice might the Minister give those schools where the governing body or its chair is not supporting the head teacher? Finally, children must be taught the skills that will allow them to navigate the modern world as adults. Will he ensure that in addition to SRE lessons, skills such as first aid and financial literacy are included in the curriculum?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Lord made several points. If the school he referred to, where he feels the Government’s response has been too slow, is Parkfield School, I can reassure him that we have been actively involved behind the scenes and in the school. The regional schools commissioner in Birmingham has been to that school weekly, and often daily. I think I am correct in saying that a mediator was hired to try to bring about consensus between parents and the school. A lot has gone on. Our view has been that publicity for these disputes is simply oxygen for the bigots who want to promote their own position. While we may not have been seen to be publicly active, we have been active behind the scenes.

On the important question on governing body support, it is a requirement under the new regulations that a school publishes its policy on RSE on its website. To get to that position, the governing body will need to have supported it.

On the broader question of navigating the modern world, that is why these RSE regulations are so important. It is nearly 20 years since they were last properly updated—before social media or smartphones existed. All the issues they bring to children are being addressed. I will write to the noble Lord to confirm whether the two subjects he raised are included.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour

My Lords, I offer support to the schools and teachers concerned in this difficult situation. I hear what the Minister says and welcome the efforts that have been made. I chair Birmingham Education Partnership, so I am aware of the distress and difficulties this is causing in the city. For all those efforts, five or six months into this dispute, schools and communities are still fragmented. The educational environment in which we want young children to learn is not available to them. How optimistic is the Minister that things will be resolved by the time the children come back to school at the start of the autumn term and that they will be able to go to school freely and learn as we would wish? What else will his department do over the coming six weeks to achieve that?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I share the concerns of the noble Baroness about these disputes. I am sure she will know, from human experience, that the longer they drag on the more entrenched people become. We remain optimistic that there will be agreement at Parkfield before the end of term, but I will not make myself a hostage to fortune by guaranteeing it. We are doing everything we can to bring the parties together. In the past few days we have made public statements supporting teachers, particularly in Birmingham, where these issues seem most sensitive. We will become more vocal if we need to and ensure that we give them the support they deserve.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Following the last point, how many attempts have been made to meet the parents? I accept that there are those who are rabble-rousing, but some parents are—maybe mistakenly—genuinely concerned. What attempt has been made to reach out to them?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I mentioned, in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that we have been in to Parkfield School almost weekly for two or three months. That has involved a number of meetings bringing teachers and parents together. As I said, I believe that a professional mediator was retained to bring the different sides together. There has been intensive work in that school over the past three or four months.